Shameful feelings stick with us as if they’re glued to our insides. They can distort how we feel about ourselves and impact choices we make as adults. Feeling defective or that there’s something intrinsically wrong with us is unbearable so, as adults, we often try to bury the feelings by over-eating, over-working, or over-scheduling.
Without realizing it we shame our kids, often mimicking the words and tone we heard from our own parents. Each time we judge or criticize who they are, what they want, what they feel and need, we are sending a message that those impulses are not okay.
The shaming response goes something like this:
For who she is: “You’re always so slow! Can’t you get ready for school on time like your sister?”
For what he wants: “You already have a room full of things to play with! Why do you always want more?”
For what she feels: “I don’t want to hear you say hate your teacher! That’s rude!”
For what he needs: “I’ve helped you tie your shoes so many times — can’t you do it yourself by now?”
You can turn this shaming response around by using empathy and setting limits without being judgemental or critical.
An empathic response would go something like this:
“I like that you take your time making sure you have everything you need for school. Let’s lay out your things before bed so we can leave on time in the morning.”
“I understand you want cool the Lego set we saw in the store today, but we’re not buying any new toys right now. You can put it on your wish list and you can decide if you still want it when your birthday comes.”
“Sounds like something happened in class today that made you angry with your teacher. Let’s talk about it.”
“Tying shoes can be tricky but once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to do it by yourself. Until then, you can ask me to help you.”
Empathize. Redirect the impulse if it’s dangerous or inappropriate. Set a limit.
Showing a child they’re “bad” by punishing them for an impulse they don’t yet understand or know how to control leaves them with negative, damaging internal feelings about themselves:
I always do it wrong.
I’m not a good person.
I’m too needy.
These feelings are the root of shame. And not only do kids feel bad about themselves, they feel compelled to be defiant, to lash out or tune out which sets up a painful dynamic for both of you.
Using empathy while setting limits on your child’s impulses helps them learn how to regulate their behavior without feeling blamed, singled out or ridiculed for it. Connecting, listening and validating your child helps them internalize positive feelings about themselves that they’ll carry with them into adulthood.